Well, to start with, this is not my first time in Germany. I visited Munich with my husband for barely 2 days on our multi-city Europe trip in 2016. I was a tourist back then. Right now I am a resident. I’ve been in Germany for the last one month. For now I’m here for a few more months and I haven’t made the intercontinental move yet. I’m just visiting my husband who relocated to Hamburg for work in January this year.
It’s been a pleasant first month. I’m told that the weather is hugely responsible for the feel-good factor and I guess it’s true. When I landed in Hamburg in the beginning of May, I felt it was too cold for summers. But gradually the weather improved and right now I’m lovin’ it.
It is also worth mentioning that I’m not a stranger to the German language.
Ich habe Deutsch in der Schule gelernt, in meiner Kindheit.
Or “I learnt German in school, in my childhood.”
That’s what I tell people when they ask me how I can speak such ‘good’ German (I think they’re being too kind!) within weeks of coming to Germany. When I told someone I’ve been here 2 weeks they actually thought I’m mixing up weeks with months and confirmed it in English. The German I learnt for 5 years in school (Class 6 to Class 10) has been a great advantage for me. Although I didn’t have any contact with it for the last 15 to 20 years, it’s just like riding a bike. If you’ve learnt how to ride a bike as a kid, you can never forget it. So I frankly found it quite easy and fun to brush up the language.
The big problem that stared me in the face when I landed in Germany was having real conversations with actual people. Before coming here, I did not enrol in a language school for practice. Whatever German I brushed up, was with the help of the Internet and a few books from the wonderful Goethe Institut library and surprisingly from my office library. In School, the teacher who taught us German was Indian, and hence not a native speaker. Also, the medium of instruction in my class was English. And we hardly ever practised speaking or listening German. We mostly focussed on reading and writing and obviously on learning and practicing the universally cursed German Grammar (which I find mildly tolerable because of my old connection with it).
When I was in Munich 3 years ago, I do not remember speaking any German at all. Maybe because I was just a tourists and to be honest my language skills were actually quite rusty. I would excitedly discuss with my husband when I understood items on the menu card or signs on the road from whatever German I remembered, but speaking or even listening were nowhere on my agenda. This time around, however, I had prepared myself to start conversing in German as soon as I landed. But things did not work out quite as I had planned.
At the immigration counter, I thought, why complicate things and make others in the queue wait unnecessarily, and therefore English it was. And then one of my bags didn’t show up on the luggage belt and I had to report lost luggage at the airport (it was safely delivered home after 2 days). In panic mode I thought, well how would I tackle this in German, and so again, English came to the rescue. But that was it !
In the next few weeks, I realized how important German is. It is not impossible to survive here without the language (specially in big cities like Berlin, Hamburg, etc.), but it is highly advisable to learn and use German because everything around is in German. A very interesting (some people find it irritating – I do not) thing about Germany is that they have welcomed outsiders from different parts of the world to their country, whether on jobs or on asylum, but they want these outsiders to learn the law and the language of the land. They aren’t forcing it on you. But not embracing English very openly is their way of making it clear that “This is Germany, we talk German”. And I don’t think its unfair or mean at their part. I truly believe that if you live somewhere, its best to learn the language the locals speak. Unfortunately I’m contradicting ‘practice what you preach’ here, because I am guilty of not learning Kannada even though I have lived in Bangalore for 9 long years. I may sound very high-headed, but I just never felt the need to, because even if I did learn Kannada, I knew that I would never ever use it in Bangalore, where locals are comfortable with English, and some even with Hindi. This precisely drives my point ! By continuing to use their own language, the Germans have created not only a necessity but also a motivation to learn their language, which, I believe, is totally not unfair.
OK so where was I ? Ya, coming back to my world, in the last one month, I have happily used my broken German everywhere. At restaurants, train station, post office, supermarkets, community meetups and most importantly at government offices. I am very new to this and understanding native speakers was indeed challenging at first, but I’m really glad that I can understand at least 80 to 90 percent of what the other person is saying, and when I don’t, I politely ask them to repeat or tell it in a simpler way or to talk slowly, and they gladly do. Maybe I have been fortunate with the people I’ve come across. Nevertheless, I am happy that I can communicate with different people and make people understand what I want to say. I admit that the grammar swings once in a while, with the complex sentence formulation, the adjective endings and the prepositions. But the people here have been patient enough to let me complete my sentences. I do sometimes have to switch to English, in complex situations, which I know would be impossible for me to explain in German, but its not very common.
I may sound silly but I cannot express how content I feel when I have real conversations with actual people in this far away land in the language they speak. I am aware that I do not speak perfect German yet, but hopefully I’ll get there soon.